Rumors of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s death were premature. But why did China let such chatter take on a life of its own?
According to North Korean media, a group of students arrived this past week at Pochonbo where, just spitting distance from an empty, gleaming Chinese tariff-free zone, they were encouraged to learn lessons from the anti-Japanese guerillas, in particular the method of “publishing flash news.” In the Kim Jong-un era, students are spreading the revolution online, occasionally sending an expedition out on the comment boards of the Chinese defend the dignity of the country’s leader.
But the image of Kim Jong-il’s successor came under perhaps its most extraordinary assault Friday, when the Chinese internet – quickly followed by the world’s media – seethed with rumors of an assassination. Kim Jong-un, microblog Weibo posts asserted, had been killed at 2 a.m. in the North Korean Embassy in Beijing. Details were scarce, but lending a veneer of respectability to the enterprise was Phoenix TV, the semi-state affiliated, semi-reformist internationalist outlet based in Hong Kong.
Certainly, Chinese netizens haven’t had the happiest relationship with Kim Jong-un: he’s habitually referred to as “Fatty Kim,” and Chinese state TV has fanned such flames by passing along parodies (easily accessible during his father’s funeral) depicting the young Kim as “Kung Fu Panda”. Virtually every time his father spun through China unannounced, Weibo lit up with unconfirmed reports of Kim Jong-un sightings in such cosmopolitan centers as Changchun. The odd formalities of the information environment in China are such that Weibo, rather than state media, is seen in China as the more fertile ground for genuine news (along with all those rumors).
So what to make of Friday’s talk? Jaundiced irony is hardly a monopoly of the Western press when covering North Korea, but some of the analysis of the Kim Jong-un rumors was, frankly, a little embarrassing. Gawker, Huffington Post and Reuters, all weighed in, sometimes inexplicably relying on unedited Google translations. Apparently content with the “Babel,” no one bothered to check or cite the North Korean state organ, the Rodong Sinmun (the newspaper does, after all, have a website). On the day he was supposedly killed, Kim Jong-un was on the website’s front page – he had received a gift from Kuwait – although there was no clear evidence he was actually there for the event.
As the next edition rolled out on the morning of February 11 local time, Kim Jong-un was said to be accepting condolences from neighbors. North Korean journalists gave a subtle nod to the Weibo rumors by including two pictures of Kim Jong-un with his dead father in a new Rodong Sinmun photo gallery, highlighted in red as if to say “hello foreign journalists.” These aren’t insignificant items: since the January 8 documentary film extravaganza celebrating Kim Jong-un, such photo montages of the deceased father have been inexplicably sloppy in omitting Kim Jong-un, going so far as to include Jang Song Taek, the so-called “regent” of North Korea who has shown hints of developing his own nascent cult of personality.
Photo Credit: Yeowatzup